When she's not sailing or hangliding, Judy Hildebrand runs what has turned into a successful vegan food business.
But it hasn't always been that way.
Long before her Judyfood brand landed on Publix store shelves earlier this month, she was hand-making her veggie and hummus dips, trying to get local people to notice.
More than a decade ago under the name of Veggie Connection, Hildebrand got her start in the vegan food market in Chattanooga by delivering her hand-made treats. After getting some recognition from the local Greenlife Grocery when it first opened, she morphed her business into one that focused on wholesalers, offering her products there instead of delivering them straight to consumers.
"People could never remember the name of my business, but they could remember that Judy was bringing them food, so they all started calling me Judyfood," she said.
The name stuck and she began to hone her skills making vegan dips and hummus from a soy mayonnaise base she created herself.
"One of my missions is to make vegan food that sort of dispels the myth that vegan food is bland and boring," Hildebrand said.
Getting her start cooking while working as a sailboat captain in Florida about 30 years ago, Hildebrand said she's always been predisposed to the vegan lifestyle because she feels it's the healthiest way to eat. When she first moved to Chattanooga in 1995 to fly her hanglider more and start her food delivery business, many people weren't familiar with what it meant to be vegan, she said.
Along the way, she's had several hurdles that nearly stopped her in her tracks.
"I thought about walking away many times," Hildebrand said. "Between having to invent my own mayonnaise [because it was getting too expensive to buy it] and putting my own commercial kitchen together, it got really hard."
That's when a longtime friend from Florida, Ned Cray, stepped in to encourage here.
"She was looking at it, saying 'I don't know how I'm going to do this,' and I just said, 'Look Judy, you've gotta believe in this, we're going to do whatever it takes to get this through,'" said Cray, who has backed Hildebrand's company financially. "Yes, there have been a few occasions where it was necessary to write a check, but for the most part just her knowing that I believe in her and what she's doing has been enough to keep her on track, keep her focused."
That push was what she needed to take her business to the next level. Last year she found a manufacturer in Pennsylvania to make her product, and earlier this year she got the opportunity to pitch her products to representatives from Publix.
Gary Beene, owner of Covenant Sales, Marketing and Retailer Services, tasted Hildebrand's products about seven years ago at a local grocery store and was hooked. He kept in touch with Hildebrand and told her if she was interested in trying to break into the retail market, she should call him.
In May she did, and seven months later her products landed on Publix store shelves in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.
vote of confidence
Beene said having the products showcased in "the premier account in the Southeast" should significantly boost Judyfood sales, but the success is still to be determined.
"It's one thing to get your product accepted by the corporation," he said. "You've gotta kind of crawl, then walk slowly, then keep going. ... Publix will do everything they can to make her a success. A lot of people watch Publix. They're kind of like a trendsetter, and once they're doing something right, others are more likely to take a look at it."
Hildebrand said having her foods in Publix stores is the boost she needs to expand her business. When she thinks about the future, she's got a lot in mind.
"I would really like to have a cooking show. That would be a lot of fun," she said. "I'd also like to be able to eventually at some point give back part of my profits to environmental organizations or organizations that promote healthy cooking or healthy lifestyles."
For now, she's focusing on keeping sales of her products up. Locally, her dips and hummus can be found at Greenlife, Earth Fare and Publix, she said.
Contact staff writer Brittany Cofer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/brittanycofer.